First, the Arab League summit here in Beirut was chaos. Then it was the nearest to Arab unity that the Middle East has seen since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The chaos, of course, was predictable. After Ariel Sharon decided that Yasir Arafat could not leave his headquarters in Ramallah, President Mubarak of Egypt pulled out. Then King Abdullah of Jordan decided to stay at home. For a summit whose central theme--Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah's "peace" plan--had gained American support, it was intriguing that Washington's two principal Arab allies, Egypt and Jordan, stayed away. George W. Bush, after all, had told the Arabs to "seize the moment." And when Arafat was supposed to address the delegates of twenty-two Arab nations by video link, the Lebanese pulled the plug. They were frightened, so they said, that Israel might tamper with the line and pop Ariel Sharon's face onto the screen. "This isn't your summit," Palestinian "foreign minister" Farouk Kaddoumi roared at President Emile Lahoud of Lebanon.
But by the second day, the Saudi plan was on the table. It was a cocktail of promises and hopes, mixed with the usual threat that this was the last chance for peace. Given the incendiary war 100 miles to the south between Palestinians and Israelis, the Saudis might be right. Recognition of Israel was offered in return for a total withdrawal of Israeli forces to the 1967 borders and a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem. President Bashar Assad of Syria--who did show up at the summit--got the Saudis to include the occupied Syrian Golan Heights in the withdrawal demand. There was talk of the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees; the Saudis also judiciously referred to "compensation" (which many Israelis believe should be the resolution to this problem) and made a few remarks of support for the intifada to keep the Palestinians happy.
Of course, it wasn't difficult to knock the whole structure down. After a few wise words about Israel's "interest" in the plan, Sharon told us that a right of return of refugees and a return to 1967 borders meant "the destruction of the state of Israel." The Saudi plan, however, was not directed toward Israel. It was aimed at the Americans. It was an attempt to offer the United States a new initiative in which the Bush Administration could engage. Some hope. The Americans had already asked Sharon to allow Arafat to go to Beirut. Sharon declined. The US-backed UN Security Council resolution demanding an end to the Israeli reoccupation of Ramallah met a similar fate. It was ignored. The Arabs were surprised, as usual.
But why the surprise? Sharon's rejection of US appeals was inevitable after the so-called "unprecedented criticism" of Israel by Secretary of State Colin Powell a little earlier. The US media might have thought it unprecedented, but it was nothing of the kind. Powell did not criticize the Israeli military invasion of West Bank cities because it involved an abuse of human rights: the killings, the destruction of houses, the mass arrests without due process. Powell suggested that the operations might be militarily ineffective. Thus the timidity, as well as the indolence, of the Bush Administration has given Sharon carte blanche.
So has the wave of atrocious suicide bombings perpetrated against Israeli civilians by Palestinians. There was precious little comment about this extraordinary phenomenon--a method of assault that can now surely be called unprecedented--at the Arab summit. The delegates who did talk privately about the tactic suggested that the human bomb was the only viable Palestinian weapon against an army possessing battle tanks and F-16s. They asked why Israel should demand the arrest of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al Aqsa Brigade members after already destroying the prisons and police stations that would be needed after the arrests were made. Good point. But the Americans missed other clues to Saudi thinking: Crown Prince Abdullah's ostentatious embrace of Saddam Hussein's representative--who wore a Saudi robe for the occasion--was a clear sign that the Saudis have not dropped their objections to a US strike on Iraq. In the aftermath of the summit, even the Kuwaitis responded to Iraq's promise not to reinvade by ordering their state-controlled newspapers to muzzle criticism of Iraq.
But was anyone listening? The Americans, it seemed, had lost interest. It was certainly noticeable that while the UN and the EU were represented at the Beirut summit, the Americans were not. And so the rot sets in. When, immediately after the summit, thousands of Israeli troops poured into Palestinian cities in their supposed war against "world terror," who remembered what the Saudis offered? True, they were trying to clean their slate after fifteen out of the nineteen September 11 hijackers (not to mention Osama bin Laden) turned out to be Saudis. But it remains a fact that in late March the most conservative Arab nation--which helped create the Taliban, no less--offered a recognition deal to Israel and brought the Arab states with it. It wasn't exactly an offer rejected. Just an offer ignored. And so we continue to walk down the path of war.